by Emily Conrad
“Do you understand any of what he’s saying?”
I’m a high school junior seated at a dining table in Nice, France, with two girls near my own age and their mother. I’m staying with their family for a week.
The question is posed in French. The subject of the question, the radio show that has been playing in the background. I’ve done well enough at understanding my host family, but I can’t pick out a single word spoken by the man on the radio.
Now, at age 34, I’m not sure I’d understand the question, posed in French, if I were to hear it again.
Even when I could understand conversations in French, it wasn’t perfectly. I remember thinking that exchange students to my high school seemed like children, and how I must’ve seemed like one to my host family, too. Were we immature? Not more so than the average teenager, but due to the language barrier, we communicated like kindergartners. Or younger.
Despite hours of conversation, we didn’t get to know our host families deeply. We spoke in simplistic language to communicate simple ideas. Our true selves were more complex than the words we traded.
And this isn’t true only of those learning a second language.
I write, sure. I have loved ones I talk to. However, much of my day goes unshared with others. The walks I take, the ebb and flow of emotions, the experiences and their effect on me. I have language with which to describe myself and my experiences. Sometimes I don’t use it. But even when I do, the person to whom I speak or write still hasn’t felt what I felt or experienced what I experienced.
Language has its limits, even in our native tongues. We all walk alone in literal and figurative ways. Our souls have depth we don’t understand ourselves. How much less can we understand the depths of another’s soul?
There are barriers between us all.
Likewise, there are barriers of understanding and comprehension between us and God. In the case of speaking with other people, the difficulty in understanding each other lies in both our openness and in the limitations of language.
But in the case of God, the difficulty is not in God’s ability to speak; it’s in our ability to comprehend. His ways are higher than our ways. Yet He goes to great lengths to break down the barriers and show us His heart.
The tension to communicate the incomprehensible fills our Bible with beautiful passages like the one praying that we would understand how high and how deep and how wide the love of God is for us (see Ephesians 3:16-19). It powers the list that goes on and on naming everything that cannot separate us from the love of God (see Romans 8:35-39).
This is the way we speak to describe something when the listener is struggling to understand. We give examples. We spell things out. We gesture with our hands. We pull out the dictionary.
As I think about the God of the universe being condensed down into human language for human minds, it’s no wonder the Bible is full of so many different kinds of writing—poetry, history, firsthand accounts, letters, laws. It’s no wonder the book is long, and some passages are hard. And it’s no wonder we can’t fully understand or know all truth while we’re in this life.
The wonder is that the inexpressible, uncontainable Word would become flesh and act out His love for us. For once, the exchange student wasn’t the student at all. He was and still is a teacher who knows us better than we know ourselves, a speaker who uses our language so boldly His utterance calms storms and His petitions receive responses from the Heavenly Father.
Jesus showed us the God who cannot be fully described in our language. Human, we still struggle and study to understand, but through Jesus, we can know God—not in full yet, but in growing knowledge that will one day be satisfied face to face.
In the meantime, we are travelers. This world is not our home. Even without language barriers, we don’t know each other fully. It’s sometimes as lonely as being an exchange student.
But, though we fail in any attempt to know another human through and through, this Word knows us fully.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:9-12, NET)
Though I wrestle against confines of my ability to express ideas to write this to you, even in my heart language, I am fully known by a Spirit who intercedes on my behalf in groans that, unsurprisingly, are too deep for words.
Awe over this leaves me longing to stare into the Word, to listen more closely, to glean everything I can about this God who sees and knows and loves me. I want to know the cadence of His love, the timbre of His voice, and every word of the lullaby of His peace.
As much as I love words, they fail, but the Word, the Word become flesh—Jesus—never will.
May His name be praised now and forever more.
Title image designed on Canva.com, photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash
Walking against the crowd photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash
Couple talking by columns photo by Loic Djim on Unsplash